The young woman is convulsed with laughter. Her boyfriend's arms are held by his sides in a long overcoat worn backwards and he is wearing an absurd plastic apron in the shape of a buxom bathing beauty. He has reached his moment of truth. Standing behind him, arms round his torso and through the sleeves of the coat, Alex Elixer is holding three grim looking double-bladed axes. "Should I juggle them?" he calls to her. "Sure," she says breaking up, "Just don't injure any important parts!" Even Elixer cracks up, momentarily. I am laughing because I've see the routine before and realize what's in store for this unsuspecting young lady, one of two hundred or so people packed onto a Halifax street. She doesn't yet know it, but soon she will be the star of this show.
Juggler, comedian, escape artist and entertainer extraordinaire, Elixer is one of some forty-three buskers plying their talent on the Halifax pavements. Magicians, jugglers, fire-dancers, mimes, story-tellers, screevers, puppeteers, ventriloquists, dancers and artists whose routines defy easy description or categorization -- they're all here for the third year in a row in what has become one of the largest events of its kind in the world and a runaway success for the crowds of people who come to be part of this incredible, international potpourri of the arcane and extraordinary.
Alex epitomizes the talent, dedication, comraderie, originality and all-round chutzpah that are characteristic of this remarkable group of people. The ex-patriate Yugoslav marionette group, Arthur & Co., has been on tour for five years! Self-taught they've set-up their show on the cobbles of virtually every European country which has let them in. They've developed their own specialized techniques of manipulation, their hands dancing like demented spiders tangled in a web of strings and sticks. Their marionette characters are a cast of of crooning, strumming nightclub musicians manipulated with a whimsy that appeals to adults and children alike.
"Even two or three days away from it," says Julia Jerkov, a former Yugoslav actress, explaining why they perform constantly, "and you start to get out of touch with the energy of the street." But isn't the itinerant life difficult; the constant travelling exhausting; the financial security nonexistent? "I wouldn't want to live any other way," she smiles, "I don't regret even one minute of it."
"Why do I do it?" says Eva Farmakoulas falling onto a sofa, "I do it because I love it! It's like a drug -- at least for me. Once you start it you can't stop." The 'it' in question is tap-dancing with partner Naitmass Touat on the streets of Paris, Cannes, Marseilles, and now, Halifax. She kicks off her pumps and "Excuse me!" rolls off her fishnets, throwing her exhausted legs onto the couch. "I had my debut when I was five years old -- in Glace Bay," she adds, the clipped Cape Breton accent still discernable to the ear. Still it took time for her to find a way to this passionate involvement with dance. After ten years in Sydney teaching everything from mathematics to Latin she threw it all to the winds and moved to Paris. "When I ran out of money I knew I had to do something so I put together a routine and started performing in the subways," she says, proudly showing me an album of the tickets and fines she accumulated -- all of which she refused to pay!
Then she met Naitmass Touat, an Algerian lady living in Paris with a degree in psychology from the Sorbonne -- and a passion for hoofing. They put together a set of choreographies and some zippy costumes and, voilą, the Foot Notes were born. I watch them later that evening on the Halifax waterfront as they dedicate their number La Femme Libere to all the liberated women and then switch on the music. The rhythms are captivating and astonishingly complicated. The movements are smooth, graceful and well-rehearsed and energy simply pours out of these two talented women.
For Naitmass, the product of a conservative Islamic upbringing, wearing a short skirt and fishnet stockings and making her living dancing on the streets was not an easy adjustment. "I can't understand the middle," says the olive-skinned, almond-eyed, raven-haired descendent of Berber nomads, "I live all the time either high or low -- in love, in life and in dance. That's why performing on the streets is so wonderful. The relationship with the audience is spontaneous and direct."
"Sure its tough sometimes," adds Eva as they take a break between sessions, "Back at the Place du Trocadero where we dance in Paris, the Evangalists come up and say we shouldn't be doing this -- that it provokes sexual impulses in men. Then there are the drunks: one kept dancing right in the middle of our act. Finally we had to pay him just to get lost! And then being two women we've heard every pick-up line in the books. Its a hard way to live but I can't let a day go by without doing it."
Can buskers really make their living practicing their art on the streets? "That's the question people most often ask us," says Madame Buskerfly (a.k.a. Kristi Heath) who with her partner Johnny Toronto (John McCorkell) make up the juggling/unicycling/stiltwalking duo, Rebels With Applause. "I have a friend who, in his routine, asks an audience member what he does. 'An accountant -- really? Can you make a living at that?' It's a great gag but only busker's get it."
Notwithstanding public perception that these performers are only moonlighting, most of the performers here do this full-time -- and can make a decent living at it. A sharp performer in a good site with a receptive audience can take in $200 a 'hat' and four or more shows a day are not unfeasible. On the other hand, there is the itinerant lifestyle, the hotels and air journeys, the days whe it rains and the cities where the local constabulary runs them out of town with not a farthing in their pockets. It takes, talent, courage and determination to succeed, and even then security is nonexistent.
"It gives me complete independence," says the half Dutch, half Balineese Pinnie Treffers who is part of the circus/comedy twosome, Mr. & Mrs. Jones on Holiday, "I know that no matter where I am I can always earn a living. I don't have to rely on anyone -- not something that many women can say."
Oh yes, back to the woman in the audience. Before she can recover from her laughter Elixer has her standing behind her boyfriend, arms through the sleeves of the coat. Then he challenges her to a race: blindfolded she has to peel and feed a banana to her boyfriend while Elixer, juggling two of the double-bladed axes, eats an apple. Ready, set, go -- the results are hilarious -- and good-natured Elixer always seems to lose. Could the race be rigged? Who cares?